Sunday, January 11, 2015

Swim, Bike, Run, Write

I read triathlete Chrissie Wellington's memoir, A Life Without Limits, recently, and it reminded me (somewhat oddly) of another triathlete's memoir—that of Sister Madonna Buder. I suppose it's not really much of a leap. They're both triathletes, both competitive. They both came to triathlons relatively late. Wellington won the Ironman championship in Hawaii four times and has smashed records; Sister Madonna has created new records.

But I've read other books about athletes who won races or came to their sports late in life—what stands out to me here is more the accidental nature of it. Sister Madonna describes feeling somewhat lost until a priest suggested that she go for a run. She went on that run, and then another, and then another...and when running was no longer enough, she added biking and swimming, and her races got longer and longer. She suffered numerous injuries (another similarity; Wellington returns frequently to her childhood nickname of 'Muppet' when describing her own accidents and errors) but just. kept. going. And somewhere along the way, she managed to meld her love of triathlons and her religious vocation.

Wellington was considerably younger than Sister Madonna when she turned to triathlons, but it feels no less by chance. She took a chance, and her coaches took a chance, and hey, there was this big race in Hawaii, and did she want to give it a shot...? Over and over again she describes training like there were hellhounds chasing her, and then showing up to a race with borrowed gear and limited knowledge of the race itself and a secondhand bike—and winning. She didn't win every race (she's since retired from competitive triathlons), but she won every Ironman she entered, which is...pretty incredible. (Honestly, when she talks about her marathon times, I kind of...gape. Sub-three-hour marathons after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112? The mind boggles. I'd love to know what she could do in a marathon if she entered one fresh.)

Neither book is going to be held up as an example of great writing or research. If you want that, you're better off with Born to Run. What I love, though, is that here you have two very different women who are doing the same thing for different reasons—and, really, having quite different experiences—and yet there's this other common thread, this oops I fell into a triathlon and I can't get up, guess I might as well be awesome while I'm at it, that you wouldn't expect.

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